Coming and going, there’s no escaping the work of Moshe Safdie. The Boston-based architect has two huge, expensive, in-your-face government office buildings in the District, and both sit at essential nodal points of city life. His headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, finished in 2008, dominates the intersection of Florida and New York Avenues in Northwest, putting a fortress-like facade to commuters along one of the busiest corridors of the city. And, now, there’s the U.S. Institute of Peace, the large, sandy-white building with the funny, glass canopy on top that sits opposite the Mall next to the Interstate 66 on-ramp.
Home to a congressionally chartered think tank that studies peace and conflict resolution, the institute is Safdie’s highest-profile project to date in the United States. The building, which won’t officially be dedicated until October, occupies one of the most prized pieces of Mall-front property in Washington, and it joins a distinguished architectural corridor, including Paul Cret’s magnificent Federal Reserve Building and John Russell Pope’s enigmatic pavilion for the American Pharmacists Association. Safdie’s addition to this row of benign and dignified civic structures neither engages nor confronts the established architectural language of institutional Washington. It sits on the Mall like it just blew in from Brussels: smart, clean and bland.
But it marks a momentous rite of passage for one Washington’s lesser-known bureaucracies. Created in 1984 and funded by Congress, the Peace Institute used to rent space in office buildings downtown. Now it has a $186 million trophy home, one quarter of which came from private donations. Permanence is the inherent goal of all government departments and agencies, and the folks at the Peace Institute must be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Their dove-winged aerie has alighted even with budget hawks looking to zero-out nonessential programs, and with ordinary hawks still the loudest voices in almost all foreign policy conversations.
The institute’s design marks yet another low point in Safdie’s long descent into repetitive corporate architecture. Almost a half-century ago, he built one good building, a dynamic housing complex of interchangeable concrete boxes, known as Habitat 67, in Montreal. A student of the brilliant maverick Louis Kahn, Safdie was conversant with the ideals and aspirations of modernism, and he designed an organic, dense urban village of interlocking modular parts. It still gives one a utopian frisson to see its rectangular forms piled up along the St. Lawrence River, and there was immediate interest in building “Habitats” in other cities around the world.
But Safdie had different plans, and whatever utopian ideals he might once have had no longer seem evident in his current work. One of his most recent structures is a gargantuan resort complex in Singapore, which suspends an enormous parklike space from near the top of three, interconnected bent-slab high rises. It is a perfect exercise in the clean lines and megalomania of police-state architecture, and it costs $20 to get into the park.